How 'On Body and Soul' Helped Its Hungarian Star Break Away From Typecasting

On Body and Soul Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF

After playing a slew of "blond, sexy girls," Alexandra Borbely, star of her country's foreign-language Oscar nominee, says "it's good to be taken seriously."

"My director in the theater would say to me: 'You always get roles based on your looks; don't expect that to change,'" says actress Alexandra Borbely. "It always made me sad because I don't want to play only the blond, sexy girls all my life."

In fact, until last year, and her breakthrough role in On Body and Soul as Maria, a painfully shy but brutally direct hygiene inspector who slowly falls in love with the manager at her company, playing the sexy, silly blonde had been the staple of Borbely's career. The 31-year-old Czech actress was a familiar face in Hungarian sitcoms, theater and the occasional film, typically cast as the sexy comic relief (see, for example, her supporting role in the otherwise avoidable 2013 gay rom-com Coming Out).

So when Borbely answered the casting call for On Body and Soul, her looks again were part of the pitch: The actress read for the minor role of a sexy police psychiatrist.

"I actually wrote that role for her," says director Ildiko Enyedi, "but when we did the casting, I saw something else there. I thought she could play the lead. Maria needed to be a combination of vulnerability and power. Everyone else I'd seen had one but not the other. Alexandra was the only person I saw who showed both in equal measure."

Borbely's transformation into Maria — a woman whose social anxiety and awkwardness suggest low-level Asperger's — was painful. After that first casting, Enyedi wrote the actress a long email, detailing everything she was doing wrong.

"She said 'Your shoulders are too feminine. Your eyes are wrong, they're too seductive,'" Borbely recalls. "I was very angry and very upset. How could I change my eyes? But I thought, 'This is a big opportunity for me,' so I started looking in the mirror, tried to change my thoughts. 'What if I never had any experience with men? What if I'm brave and strong but not experienced? And, funny thing was, I think the anger helped me, it helped change my look. Slowly I found Maria."

Before the second reading, Borbely went to her favorite costume designer and picked out "a truly awful blouse" to hide her "feminine shoulders." A makeup artist from the theater did her hair (straight, plain, unassuming) and face (pale, just this side of sickly). "I went to the mirror and thought: I look awful. It was perfect," says Borbely, "I felt strong. I knew I was going to get this role."

She did.

After transforming from butterfly to caterpillar, Borbely says making the trip back — in the film Maria slowly embraces the sensual world, starting with the feel of mashed potatoes and the warmth of the sun, moving up, eventually, to actual sex — was a matter of reversing the process. Her performance won over the jury in Berlin, which awarded On Body and Soul the Golden Bear for best film. In November, Borbely beat the likes of Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert to win best actress at the European Film Awards. The offers followed, for roles in films from Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. And also at least one, "but it's still secret," from Hollywood.

Borbely has taken a break from the theater, and that director who said she'd never get past her looks. "We'll see what happens now," she says, "I'm just enjoying it. It's good to be taken seriously."

A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.